|Date of visit||5 April 2021|
|Area||Wilderness, near George, Cape Province, RSA (see map below)|
|Soils||Shallow, sandy soils with a thick layer of ‘ouklip’ (clay), at about 30-40cm deep, that cannot be used.|
|Rainfall||Av for this farm is 56-60mm/month, every month, for last 30 years.|
|Humidity||Humidity: 72% in summer. 66% in winter.
There are an average of 11 days every month that is rainy and misty – caused by the mountain range behind.
|Winds||Constant but gentler than in KZN. Bends, rather than breaks, the trees.|
|Altitude||200m above sea level – on a plateau at the base of the Outeniqua mountains.|
|Distance from the coast||10 kms|
|Temperature range||Temp: 15°C to 25°C (av min and max.) No frost although they do go below 10°C.|
|Varieties||Too many to mention but the favoured ones are A4, Nelmak 2, 791 (Fuji) and Beaumont.|
|Hectares under mac||60 hectares (on this farm)|
|Other crops||This is an entrepreneurial farmer who tests and trials various other income streams including, but not limited to, agriculture.|
When you travel east, from George, you find one of the most beautiful coastlines in the country. It is here where you will find Wilderness.
I am so excited to share insights from the first Cape visit for TropicalBytes. And it could not have been a more perfect farmer – he’s been here for about 24 years, farming macs commercially in this province for just over 16 of those, and is very willing to share what he’s learnt so that others don’t have to pay the school fees he has. I just have to pause there and pay this the respect it truly deserves; someone being willing to help – no compensation, no recognition, just a will to help others. When I find people like this (and all my TropicalBytes farmers are these people) the lump in my throat grows and the gratitude runs down my cheeks. Thank you, Jaff 17, for all the time and effort you invested in our interview – I sincerely hope I do it justice.
Originally from Vivo, in Limpopo province, Jaff has been farming macadamias for a long time. His dad was a potato farmer and, initially, Jaff tried to avoid following in his footsteps by doing a Marketing degree after school. That career lasted as long as it took for Jaff to discover that being the captain of his own entrepreneurial skills was what he really wanted and the farm offered the opportunity to explore those. It has never been an easy ride though and, after a particularly rough potato season, Jaff’s dad needed to sell the farm Jaff was to inherit. So Jaff threw everything in and made a long-term commitment to farming by “buying his inheritance” in 1998. And then came the land claims. They were valid claims, that took their toll and eventually drove Jaff consider life away from Levubu. He was 28 at the time and decided it was easier to sell. KZN wasn’t an option because of the prolific land-claims in this province so he headed to the Cape, where land-claims aren’t a thing.
Jaff left Levubu with all the mac trees he had in his nursery. His plan was to find a small coastal farm (about 20 hectares), establish a small orchard and then go cattle farming in the Vivo area. But, he struggled to find a suitably sized farm and ended up buying this 60 hectares which took up all his capital – he wouldn’t be going back to Vivo. Jaff was encouraged by the temperate climate in the Cape and the fact that the area around George was largely dairy; in Australia, there are many dairies interspersed with mac farms. On closer inspection, the climate here definitely compared well with the macs’ original natural climate in NSW.
Any regrets? “Yes,” Jaff answers honestly, “I love my life here and am grateful for everything but, if I could rewind, I would not have sold. Moving here was like moving to another planet.” Jaff is referring to the climate and how differently the macs behave here. For Jaff, this journey of discovery was a painful one – financially and emotionally. It has taken well over a decade, but Jaff feels they’re through the maze. His experiences and advice can save other farmers from having to pay the school fees he did …
Although Jaff is not old (he’s younger than me and therefore DEFINITELY not old 😉) he has been around the block a few times so he (wisely) decided to plant a trial block of MANY cultivars before deciding what to ‘go big’ with. There was no one around to ask what had worked for them and Jaff wanted a full report so he planted 25 different varieties! His observations in this block backed his suspicions that good ole Beaumonts would do well. So he planted mostly pure Beaumonts blocks, A4 and Nelmak 2 blocks, as well as some of the more promising integs.
And he waited … and he waited … and he waited … the Beaumonts disappointed him every year. They’d be covered in flowers but very little set into nuts. He got desperate and eventually had to get a job to carry his household through this crisis. Jaff could not understand why the Beaumonts in his trial block always did so well but, in the big orchards, they were dismal. With hindsight, he can’t believe it took him so long to pinpoint the difference between the two scenarios; cross-pollinators!
Jaff decided to top-work cross-pollinators into his pure Beaumont blocks to test his suspicions. The results were game-changing … as soon the cross-pollen was worked into the Beaumonts, the nuts set and the harvest arrived! He went from averaging 0,5t/ha to some orchards delivering 4t/ha. One block that always gave 10 tonnes suddenly delivered 70 tonnes!
Now that he knows what the problem was, he’s had the opportunity to identify it throughout the industry: he says that the KZN South coast experiences a similar phenomenon every 5 or so years. In Nelspruit, it usually happens once in about 10 years. But, it’s always in Beaumonts and its always linked to wet weather. As Wilderness is pretty much ‘wet weather’ all year round, it’s no surprise that he was experiencing it every season.
So, what are we talking about? What is this ‘phenomenon’? Low/no nut set, in pure Beaumont blocks, in wet weather.
What is behind this ‘phenomenon’? Jaff believes it is all linked to cross-pollination.
We all know that Beaumonts have unique characteristics – their flowers are pink, their nuts don’t drop when ripe and they are very susceptible to Blossom Blight. They’re different to other cultivars and Jaff says, as a commercial farmer, the most important thing to know about this popular variety is that it needs cross-pollen (pollen from another variety) to set well. Because insects (mostly bees) are the ones who deliver this pollen and, in cool, wet weather, insect activity is subdued, it has to have cross-pollinators CLOSE BY to yield a crop. As 80% of macs planted in SA are Beaumonts, I’d say this is invaluable knowledge.
As I re-read and fully absorb all that Jaff said, I realise how multi-faceted and complex it has been to try and understand what was going on with the Beaumonts on this farm. I hope I am able to relay all the factors in a useful way … here’s a bit more on getting this Beaumont beast into line in this Cape climate …
Jaff explains that flowering, in a mac tree, is initiated by a drop in temperatures (below 12°C). In our more sub-tropical regions in KZN and further north, this generally happens at a set time, during winter. But, in this milder climate, below 12°C can reoccur over a wider time frame (as the cool winds blow in from the Atlantic Ocean) so the flowering switch is flicked more regularly, over a longer period. Now, in a commercial Beaumont orchard, these multiple flowerings are an issue because you end up with nuts of all ages hanging on the trees. No matter when you spray ethapon, you’ll always be wasting some of the nuts that were too immature to be dropped. Jaff was confounded by the challenge of getting this darn tree to flower ONCE and set the nuts ONCE when Nature was continuously flicking the flowering switch! The solution came when Jaff introduced cross pollen and a full crop was set. Suddenly the tree knew that it had done enough and the flowers stopped. But this full set ONLY happened when cross-pollen was introduced. Off its own pollen, Beaumonts will struggle to set a full crop and the flowering will continue, encouraged by the cooler Cape weather. So, cross pollen has not only helped Jaff with a better yield, it also helped bring the trees in line, making a commercial harvest more achievable. Yes, he still sprays ethapon twice (and harvests twice) because he dilutes it down to 2 litres per hectare so that the 791 or A4 pollinators, in the same orchard, can cope.
Even though he’s introduced the necessary cross pollen, he still sees evidence of this phenomenon in the Beaumonts on the perimeter of the orchards, where the wind blows in from the south (ocean). He had planted 4 rows of Beaumonts here because he thought they might be more tolerant/hardy if there were touches of frost on these cold winds. They have coped with the cold but continue to flower prolifically over and over again. Jaff is now top-working these trees with A4.
Beaumont on the outside of an orchard with no pollinators nearby – repeated crop and flowers.
Jaff paints the trees if the out of season yield is bigger than the in-season yield. It’s just an identifier – then they will come back and yield this tree by hand later (no ethapon applied) so that they don’t lose these nuts (It’s not worth risking the crop if the out of season crop is bigger).
This Beaumont is surrounded by other cultivars – N2, A4, 791. It has a full crop and no out of season flowers. Note also how it is bearing on young wood and the racemes are close together – this is typical of smaller, Cape trees. They bear well but the crop is dense because the trees are smaller. Well-illustrated in the pic below as well.
VIABLE CROSS POLLINATORS FOR BEAUMONT
Ten years in to farming macs in the Cape, Jaff was desperate. By now he’s now working a full-time job, selling assets to keep the ship afloat and he needs to turn this mac farm around IN A HURRY. Pursuing his findings that the Beaumonts need cross-pollen, he selects the most precocious* varieties he has and starts reworking every third row in the Beaumont orchards.
*Jaff uses this word in a slightly different context to what I had always understood it and so I learnt that it has a closely-related dual-meaning; Jaff uses it to refer to flowering or fruiting on very young wood.
Jaff therefore used his most precocious varieties to top-work the Beaumonts. Fuji (791) bears on brand new (6 months old) wood, it also flowers over a long period – thereby being compatible with Beaumonts from a timing perspective. Added to this, it does not drop immature nuts if a diluted form of ethapon (2 litres per hectare) is applied. The only down-side of this cultivar is that it has a relatively poor crack out of around 33% (on this farm).
This precocious behaviour (flowering on very young wood) is typical of 791 (Fuji).
An impressive yield on the 791s but the crack outs are generally low, around 33%. Note how young the wood is that this crop is being carried on.
So, by now Jaff’s Beaumont orchards are 8 to 10 years old and top-working was a far better option than replanting. But how was he going to do this in the most time-efficient manner?
Up north, they cut the existing tree down, to the root stock and let the regrowth bush out. Then they select a few of these new shoots to pencil graft. He tried a few trees that way but had a high loss – he believes that cutting a tree down so low that all its leaves are gone is like cutting its lungs out so he decided to rather remove one central leader. This way he also kept something to harvest while the switch over was happening. Onto this cut branch he did a ‘block graft’ rather than waiting for fresh shoots to pencil graft.
Block grafting works like this: the same day as you cut off the central leader, you graft 2 or 3 budwoods on, as per below.
#5 – 2 grafts took on this tree and the tree is now completely A4, with the old cultivar branches removed.
Because the tree will also push new shoots from the point where the central leader was cut off, Jaff has the option to do pencil grafts if the block grafts fail. This way, he may get a head start (block graft) but still has a second shot (pencil graft) if the former option fails.
None of the “block” grafts took so they then did a pencil graft on a shoot that grew when the branch was removed.
This block graft took and will become the new canopy. After this season, when all the nuts on the background branches have been harvested, all the branches, apart from the one new graft, will be removed.
Jaff reports that, depending on the weather, he can have up to an 80% success rate when block grafting. Cool, wet weather is most favourable. If conditions are hot and dry the success rate can drop as low as 10%. Feb and March, Sept and Oct are the best months for grafting on his farm. “This is very different to Levubu where you can graft every month of the year,” reports Jaff. He has found that preparing the mother-wood 6 weeks in advance helps the success rate.
The way they are grafting means that there are 3 cultivars involved in the final tree – root stock, original bearing wood, and then the new top-work wood. Jaff reports that this is not a problem, in most cases. The only issue has been observed on 741 in that it is not easy to graft on to. The conditions must be perfect and sometimes it can take a long time. A4 and Nelmak 2, in particular, struggle to “take” on this cultivar.
CROSS POLLEN SAVED THE FARM
After figuring out what the problem with yield was, Jaff top-worked every 3rd row in the pure Beaumont blocks with 791. The Beaumonts were 10 years old when they were regrafted. It took about 5 years for all the grafts to start producing enough pollen to save the farm.
Jaff has found that he is not the only one struggling with pure Beaumont blocks. A few years ago, he advised a farmer in Port Alfred, who was desperate over the lack of yield from his 18-year-old Beaumonts – he was about to remove all macs completely. Jaff advised him to first try and graft every third row with a cross-pollinator. He did that and the results were so transformative that they’re now planting macs again. All they needed was cross pollen.
What is it about cross pollen that is so revolutionary?
(Perhaps it is prudent, at this stage, to just be clear on self-pollen and cross-pollen: mac trees are protandrous and cannot self-pollinate, internally, from the same flower – read this article for more info: http://www.tropicalbytes.co.za/2021-5-flowers-to-nuts/ – they require pollen from another flower. This can be from the same tree/cultivar, in which case it would be self-pollination OR it can be pollen from another cultivar, which is cross-pollen.)
In Jaff’s expert opinion, cross-pollination results in:
- higher nut set
- at least a 20% better crack out. On this farm, self-pollinated, Beaumont will crack out at 30%. With a cross-pollinator, it will be 40%.
And, as more nuts, of a higher quality, is the aim of this mac game, cross-pollination is a HUGE factor.
SO, HOW CLOSE DOES THE CROSS POLLEN HAVE TO BE? This is something that every farm needs to figure out for itself. It seems to be that the cooler and wetter the climate and therefore, the lower the insect activity, the closer the cross pollen has to be. First prize, for Jaff, is to have equal performers pollinating each other like his A4s and Nelmak 2s. Neither is superior, in terms of results, so he alternates 2 rows of each in these orchards.
Because Beaumonts require ethapon to drop their nuts, deciding what is going to pollenate them is the problem. And that’s why pure Beaumont blocks are so common. But Jaff would recommend that they are avoided in the Cape. Yes, they are also his best performers, if cross-pollinated – his worst, if self-pollinated. So, they are worth the trouble if you have an appetite for trouble 😊 Jaff’s solution, at this stage is 2 rows of Beaumont and one row of a cross-pollinator that can take a diluted dose of ethapon – both A4s and 791s can cope.
Jaff has also learnt that not only must every 3rd row be a cross-pollinator but so must the first two trees in each row, as per the diagram below; they won’t set well unless they are enclosed by cross pollen.
In a Beaumont orchard, every third row should be a cross-pollinator as well as the first two trees in every row.
Jaff explains that what we’re seeing is one pollinated nut on this raceme. Although the others appear to have set, they are unpollinated and won’t mature.
The two pictures above were taken in an orchard where the cross-pollinators are not yet mature enough so all these small nuts will come to naught. Jaff explains that this was basically what he experienced for 10 years (in desperate frustration) before he realised that the key was all in an abundant supply of cross pollen.
This Beaumont tree, at the end of the row, in a Beaumont orchard, is busy becoming a Nelmak 2 to provide some cross-pollen for the Beaumonts behind it.
Integrifolias – These prefer warmer climates. Their leaves are less prickly, and have a rounder shape. The new growth (flush) is lighter green in colour. The flowers are white or yellowy-white. Examples of integs are: All the ‘8’s’ (814, 816, 842, 849), 788, 344, A38. These cultivars tend to invest in vegetative growth in their formative years and are less precocious in that they take 10 to 12 years before they reach full bearing capacity. During these build up years, they bear on older (3 to 5 year) wood. “But,” Jaff adds, “once they reach maturity (leave the vegetative growth stage) and enter the bearing stage, their bearing pattern changes and, from about 10 to 12 years old, they will start to bear on new wood.” This explains why integs will suddenly go from comparatively poor producers to champions, seemingly over night.
Integs take longer to reach reproductive stage.
Integs tend to flower earlier in the season and will therefore be good cross-pollinators for each other.
On this farm, integs tend to be alternate bearing so Jaff has avoided them. He has managed to improve flowering and yield, through well-timed hormone sprays, but he believes they’re not worth the trouble. The most promising was 814, showing good signs of precocious behaviour. 816 is the worst performing variety on this farm. Although it has a high crack out, the yields are dismal. They are the biggest trees in the orchards because they never bear, they just grow. 772 is another integ that showed signs of promise in that it produces consistently every year. What went against it is that it has a very thick shell and only starts to bear in year 4 to 5.
‘Yonik’ (never heard of it before) has the best crack out of any variety on this farm. Jaff remembers that it was a cultivar developed in the 1980s and he thinks he got them from Tzaneen. Yield is too low.
Tetraphylias – Besides the integs, these are the only other macadamias that can be eaten raw. They are tolerant of cooler climates and have a more vertical growth pattern. The leaves are prickly with a red shade in the new flush. Flowers are pink. We are not using any of these macs in our commercial orchards but their genes are present in a lot of our best rootstocks.
Hybrids – These are varieties bred from a mix of Integs and Tetraphylias, for use on commercial farms. Examples are Beaumont, A4, A16, Nelmak 26 and Nelmak 2. The bearing patterns of these trees have been altered for commercial gain – they are generally precocious, with commercial volumes being harvested from as young as 3 years but hybridistion has resulted in ‘deurmekaar*’ bearing patterns (to quote Jaff) *translation: confused. Explanation: although A16s are hybrids, they do not flower as early as other hybrids, like Beaumonts.
Hybrids tend to flower later in the season and will therefore be good cross-pollinators for each other.
Although they are both ‘A’ varieties, A16 is a hybrid and A38 is an integ. Both have long, willowy branches but the differences become more apparent when comparing the leaves – A16s tend to curl at the edges and are pointed while A38 have a more typically integ leaf that is smooth and round. Another difference is that A38 bears in bunches whilst A16 doesn’t.
Three things are illustrated in this picture of a 10-year-old A38; 1. The typical bunch-bearing, 2. The willowy branches, 3. The bearing pattern which is still on older wood. Jaff knows that, next year, this tree will bear on the younger wood as it reaches maturity and changes bearing patterns accordingly.
This A38 is already starting to bear on far younger wood and Jaff says he will see much more of this next year.
A nice comparison of the A38 (left) and the A4 (right) bearing pattern, with the A38s being inclined to bunches and the A4s distinguishable as having a few nuts set on each raceme.
The two trees pictured above are both 15-year-old trees that were reworked in 2013 so the top-working is about 7 years old. Jaff explains that the age of the original tree obviously plays a role in the state of the tree (vegetative or reproductive).
Tribred – One cultivar falls into this category: 791 aka Fuji. It has been bred from a mix of 50% Integ, 45% Tetraphylia and 5% Ternifolia macs (these Ternifolia nuts are not edible in their raw state).
Jaff had been reworking A38s into this orchard because he thought it was a hybrid (like the A4 and A16) and would therefore have precocious tendencies (to flower on young wood and give him the cross pollen he desperately needed for the Beaumonts) BUT, A38s are integs so they were not serving his purpose, despite them being excellent bearers now that they have finally come in to production – the pics above are their first crop!
Nelmak 2 graft that has already produced multiple flowers which are about to provide valuable cross pollen for the Beaumonts around it.
What works for Jaff? He prefers the hybrids because they are precocious and they bear consistently, every year. The tribred, 791, was chosen as the perfect solution to Jaff’s Beaumont cross-pollen requirements because it is so precocious and would therefore help him get pollen into the orchards within a year. Because it bears on such young wood, it can therefore be planted high density, pruned regularly and still have a solid flowering, on the new wood, the following year. As a bonus, it will also flower on older wood so you don’t have to employ aggressive pruning if the trees are spaced more conventionally.
Jaff has been a Nelmak 2 fan for many years. It’s a variety that I have often wondered about … having been developed locally, I thought it would be the most common but Jaff explained why it hasn’t been popular for a long time. It used to be the only root stock used in SA and has been recorded to deliver an unbelievable 10t/ha (WNIS) as a bearer. But, hybrids characteristically have nuts with a slightly higher sugar content which means that, when baked, the kernels go slightly darker. Industry standard at the time was to bake at 180°C. This high temperature resulted in a noticeably darker kernel. The Americans rejected them and the SA macadamia price crashed. The processors stopped accepting Nelmak 2 (except for the very end of the season when they would take them in only if there was any demand). As a result, all the growers removed their Nelmak 2 orchards in favour of processor-preferred integs.
Then, in the early 2000s, the Australians started with A4s. These nuts have the same hybrid characteristics when baked. The tsunami of A4s into the market was unstoppable and the processors were forced to change their baking temperatures from 180°C to 130°C. At this heat, the kernels keep a lighter colour, although their sugar content will always push them to be slightly more caramel than integs.
Now that the processors could offer hybrids that the international market was happy with, Nelmak 2 (along with all the other hybrids) were again welcome.
Nelmak2 nuts (notice how large they are) on the new grafts.
Jaff explains that Nelmak 2 is an exceptional choice for any farm; the very large kernels and thin shells means that you get a premium price and excellent crack-outs. In Jaff’s experience, their yield is not as affected by the lack of cross-pollen as Beaumont is. They also don’t struggle with Blossom Blight and don’t need to be sprayed with ethapon to drop their nuts! In the plantings Jaff has planned for a new farm he recently acquired in Plettenberg Bay, he will be planting Nelmak 2 with A4 – alternating 2 rows of each.
Nelmak 2 (nuts on the left-hand side) and 842 (nuts on the right-hand side) on one tree. Notice also how young the wood is that the Nelmak 2 is bearing on. The 842 is also bearing on young wood but remember that that portion of this tree is about 15 years old now. The Nelmak 2 was grafted on last year.
791 grafted on to an 842. (Jaff is getting rid of all his integs in favour of hybrids). The bunch he is holding up are 791 but 842 nuts can be seen on the background branches, to the right (much smaller).
A38 is a cultivar I had never met before and it was VERY impressive on all the farms where I found it here in the Cape. Jaff says the integs tend to do this here – over-bear and then the following season, they produce nothing.
Jaff has found that 741 is useless here. (He has it planted every 7th row in one of his blocks) It flowers 2 months before Beaumont so it’s no good as a pollinator and, every second year it fails to even flower. He is reworking all of them to Nelmak 2, as can be seen if you zoom in to the centre of the tree.
788 raceme of flowers held alongside a Nelmak 26 raceme of nuts. Nelmak 26 have the longest racemes of all macadamia cultivars and they typically carry very few nuts, right at the end of the raceme.
814 yield – Jaff says they are very alternate bearing – he believes it is because they “dra hulleself dood”. (translation: ‘they carry themselves dead’ by which he means that they bear so heavily in one year that they do not recover sufficiently to repeat the same volume in the subsequent years – they turn yellow and then struggle to recover). Jaff initially suspected the soil but the Beaumonts, in this same soil, do fine.
Jaff also has suspicions about the root stock that these 814 trees are on – he thinks it may be integ. There are 100 trees in this 814 trial block.
Unusual variety with a strange bearing style – 812. Being reworked to 791.
Jaff has many trees that carry two cultivars. He has no problem with this, in fact, he encourages it so that he has more pollen available at different times. It made me think of a Jaff I visited in 2020 – he had a tree like this; it was bearing heavily on Beaumont-coloured root stock that had shot through in a 788 (I think) orchard … I took pictures and included it in the article because the Beaumont yield was so impressive. He asked that I remove the pic and reference to the tree (I think because they perhaps felt others would consider them shabby farmers for allowing the root stock to have grown through). When I told Jaff about it, he said, “Yes, of course it is going to be their very best tree because it is most probably 98% cross-pollinated!”
A4 on the left and Nelmak 2 on the right – one tree.
The first step is to understand the soil and whether it is suitable for macs. The soils here are generally sandy and shallow with a thick layer of ouklip (clay) at about 30-40cm below the surface. Jaff warns that this should be left where it is. To incorporate it in to the root zone soil will raise clay content dangerously high. It is best to ridge up whatever soil is above this layer and make sure that drainage is effective in moving water away. The soil profile made this farm unsuitable for avos which would have been Jaff’s first choice of crop. Despite the warnings, he planted avos and they did really well for a number of years until they had a 400mm downpour and the water had nowhere to go. As we all know, that is a death sentence for avos. And so Jaff refocussed on the macs …
Here, Jaff is in the process of moving soil from the interrow onto the ridges – to broaden them and provide a greater space for root growth. Initial land prep was not done with a v-blade.
Once your soil has been classified, check the chemical composition so that any imbalances can be corrected before planting.
On this farm Jaff uses a standard 8m x 4m spacing and recommends that for this area. Unless you have a small, dryland farm, then 791s could be spaced at 8m x 3m.
Jaff has another small “lifestyle” farm of 10 hectares, in Plettenberg Bay. Here he has decided to push boundaries in pursuit of a personal challenge; to get 6 tonnes per hectare!! There are 850 trees per hectare, planted in tramlines. 2m between the trees in the rows, 4m between the tramline rows, 8m between every second row to allow for tractor access. Tramlines will be managed as one row. Jaff will use 2 rows of Beaumont and two rows of 791 in these orchards. He knows that intense pruning will be required but it’s a small farm and he expects big thigs from it.
When it comes to planting, Jaff’s biggest warning is to not plant too deep. “Only dig the hole on the day, when the tree is at the hole and you can tell how deep the hole should be. Width doesn’t matter too much but depth does. Don’t dig deep and then fill up either because the disturbed soil will subside.” Jaff told me about a local farmer who didn’t listen to this advice; his young trees sank, when the soil under them settled, and then they started dying. He was blaming the nursery until Jaff showed him what he’d done. Once they pulled the ridges lower some of the trees started to recover.
After planting, Jaff drenches with a water mix that includes a starter solution (earth worm dung and growth hormone).
Jaff intentionally leaves a shield of natural vegetation around his young trees. This provides a micro-climate that will protect the tree from wind as well as build up beneficial insect populations. The wind can dwarf the trees in this region.
The area directly around the young tree is sprayed with grass killers so that he can fertilise and mulch. Grass grows incredibly well here and needs to be managed constantly.
Stake (and brace at two points) and protect the stem (from herbicides).
Jaff then prunes so that a central leader IS NOT produced. He does not create a central leader because that will be taken by the wind. He creates at least 3 to 4 leaders. The chances of all of those being broken in the wind is far less.
Some real-time pruning for us! In a few weeks, this one will look like this …
… with multiple leaders in the making.
Jaff says his staff say, “hierdie is die baas se werk.” (translation: this is the boss’s work) They don’t like to cut the small trees so aggressively.
When the tree first arrives from the nursery and is planted, cut it at knee height as shown in the picture on the left. This will cause the tree to shoot (shown in centre pic) at least 3 new branches. When these new branches reach 30cm in length, cut them again. Keep doing this up until year 2 so that you create a bushy tree. When it is older, you can thin it out for sunlight access.
In the first 3 years Jaff breaks the flowers off. At my raised eyebrows he explains that, if he doesn’t do this, the trees take even longer to grow. There are only about 4 warm months available for growth every year and he cannot have any energy wasted.
When I asked about using the interrow space while the trees were young, Jaff said that he has tried a number of things but nothing made commercial sense. Now he just leaves the natural vegetation to protect the young trees and develop in to a healthy environment for beneficial insects.
ORDERING TREES VS MAKING THEM YOURSELF
Jaff has a nursery on the farm but prefers to order quality rooted cuttings from a registered nursery. These are planted and top-worked at a later stage. Because of Jaff’s established trial block and extensive orchards, he has the luxury of an abundant supply of motherwood.
Recent in-field grafts of A4 onto Beaumont rooted cuttings. Note: Jaff has done multiple grafts per tree as this speeds up the change. He always makes sure that a few branches of the original tree are left (until grafts have their own leaves) so that the tree has lungs to photosynthesise throughout the grafting process. To remove all Beaumont branches would spell disaster for the young tree.
Rooted cuttings for the new farm in Plett – bought from a registered nursery.
Jaff is planning to do a hectare of coffee under net, just for the ‘story’ … a little side-line hustle. He may even open a coffee shop one day …
WIND BREAKS AND YOUNG TREE STAKES
As we would suspect in the Cape, wind-breaks are vital. Even though the winds are generally not violent enough to break trees, they do have a deforming and dwarfing effect.
Beef-woods or Chinese poplars are options but Jaff warns that Beefwoods (evergreen) need to be removed after about 15 years because they start to affect yield. By 15 years, the mac trees are big enough to manage without a wind-break. Jaff’s personal preference is for Chinese poplars which are not evergreen and do not affect yield at all.
Jaff stakes all young trees (okay, all except the one in the picture below 🤣) with a blue gum prop. This is placed on the opposite side to the prevailing wind and left for 3 years.
When Jaff saw me photograph this tree he made me promise to make it clear that this is an example of how NOT to do it!
Chinese Poplar wind breaks. The mac trees still yield well even in close proximity to the wind-break which, in Jaff’s experience, does not happen with the Beefwood (casuarinas).
If you zoom in tightly you will see the impressive yield on these A4s despite the fact that they are right under the windbreak.
The wind break (seen in the background of the pic on the left) has provided protection and allowed the trees to grow bigger. The pic on the right is down the same row but it is clear that the trees, not getting protection from the windbreak, are smaller.
Chinese poplars, being grown in Jaff’s farm nursery, for the new farm. (He says they are easy to cultivate from cuttings)
Although Jaff believes you could easily go dryland in this area, his farm does have irrigation, just to cover the times when the trees need a little more. Some seasons, the pumps will lie dormant for 7 to 8 months of the year. Although most farms in the region are fed by rivers, this farm has a rain-fed dam.
A typical scene in this area – lots of water and misty conditions.
Jaff starts to fertilise a month after planting, with controlled-release products. He has the soil and leaves analysed in a grid pattern (1/2-hectare grids) and relies on the specialist recommendations for fertilising programmes, using granular products applied by precision equipment. For this, Jaff uses service providers. The software is loaded with the recommended fertiliser levels and the tractor moves through the orchards, applying chemical as required. No human intervention required (besides steering the tractor). The computers open, close and adjust applications as specified by the software data. Lime and Gypsum is also applied in the same way.
Because irrigation is so seldom used, fertigation is not really an option. Jaff goes on to explain why drip is also not really a viable option; “You cannot manipulate a tree here like you can in the dry areas by forming pots of roots through which you feed the tree. Here, the roots are spread all over because they are predominantly rain-fed so drip irrigation doesn’t work. If you’re only irrigating 25% of the time, then you need to follow the pattern of the 75% (natural rain) – and that is best achieved by micro-jets”.
Jaff explains that the yellowing of these leaves indicates a magnesium shortage which he believes has been induced by the heavy yield this season. These are Beaumont trees and Jaff says they’ll recover quickly and will produce well again next year. This farm needs a lot of iron and magnesium. The lack of iron is evident in the fact that there are almost no red-coloured soils.
Jaff suggests that the yellow nuts might be an iron deficiency caused by the high phosphates in the soil. (Phosphate-induced iron-deficiency.) Historically, the chief agriculture in this region has been dairy farming so the soils are typically phosphate-rich.
When Jaff sees yellow leaves, he knows the trees need help with the load they’re carrying. The Beaumonts will bounce back from a heavy yield, “You must just gooi the kunsmis,” he says. (Translation for international readers: “You must just give extra fertiliser.”)
Jaff leaves all the fallen leaves on the ridges to create mulch. Compost is made from the mac husks and wood chips – after it has matured for a year it is placed around the younger trees.
The constant wind dwarfs the trees making pruning less of a task than in the hotter regions.
Up until this point, Jaff has never pruned the height! Most of the trees are about 4,5m tall but some have gotten up to 8m so he will be pruning down this year.
Skirting is necessary so that weeds and grass can be sprayed and harvesting is unobstructed. Often the heavy harvest will pull the branches down to the ground anyway.
Beaumont branches being pulled low by the heavy harvest.
The biggest pest here is the 2-spotted stink bug. Jaff likes to keep the unsound rate below 1% and the best they’ve ever recorded in a season is 0,8%.
Jaff was scouting but, through sheer frustration, stopped. He would spray 10 trees, find no stink bugs, then turn around to his bakkie and there would be one on his bonnet! It was during this exasperating phase that he got a 3% unsound report for a delivery and he decided that a scheduled spray programme might be the answer for him.
Here, insect damage is not the dire issue it is in other regions and depends on the weather each year. If it’s a wet year and there’s lots of food the stink bugs will go for the fresh, soft, new leaves. But, in a dry year, like last year, then they tend to go for the nuts. In Jaff’s opinion, the stink bugs prefer the leaves and will go for those rather than the nuts if they are soft. Because they have winter flush here (rains all year) the stink bugs tend to go for the leaves even when the nuts are on the trees so there might be high stink bug counts but the damage is low (by comparison). He does think that this situation will change though. He never used to spray but now he is spraying every month. This is incorporated into the foliar feed. Jaff explains openly, “It’s all about the money – we can’t risk losing the income to pest damage. But I am trying to walk the fine line between preserving income and limiting environmental damage.”
Thrips is also not a huge problem. Perhaps it will come but the climate here doesn’t seem to be warm enough for insect epidemics; it’s too cool and too wet.
A new, young farmer recently came to the area, from Nelspruit, and he remarked to Jaff, “Wow – look at your green nuts!” Jaff told him that mac nut husks are always green and he was surprised … in Nelspruit they’re always brown (thrips)! 🤣
Macadamia Nut Borer are a challenge, made more acute by the fact that the nuts only harden off at the end of Feb or early March. Jaff has traps that are checked weekly and the latest count indicated that they have to spray again. Jaff suspects that they also have False Coddling Moth but he didn’t find any in the traps this year.
Macadamia Nut-borer damage.
In this moist, temperate climate it was no surprise to hear that fungi were a challenge. Jaff has to spray for Blossom Blight throughout the season.
Phytophthora also thrives and requires consistent treatment to keep it at bay. Jaff paints phosphoric acid on to open wounds and puts peroxide through the irrigation system when it is being used.
A lot of empty racemes in this part of the orchard is the result of a blight issue – they were out of season flowers that weren’t sprayed for Blossom Blight. There is a lot of moisture in this area of the orchard.
YIELD & HARVEST
The wet-in-shell yield on this farm is around 4 tonnes per hectare on all the orchards that have been top-worked and are back in full production. The blocks that are still recovering from the top-working are around 2,5 to 3 t/h.
The harvest usually starts in April, with the integs (early varieties). A 2-litres per hectare Ethapon solution is sprayed on the remaining trees at the end of May (only hybrids left to harvest by now). Then, at the end of June, the Beaumonts (only) get a second, diluted dose. This is usually done with handguns to preserve the pollinators. By July/August they are pulling/hitting the last nuts from the trees. This schedule is one to two months behind what he was running in Levubu and leaves a very small window for orchard clean ups and tree-recovery (especially the ones that were sprayed with ethapon).
Besides clearing the stubborn nuts from the trees at the end of the season, all the nuts are harvested from the floor. 788 and Nelmak 2 nuts are susceptible to husk rot if they aren’t collected quickly and processed efficiently.
Once the nuts have been dehusked and sorted they are dried to 5% moisture. Jaff uses heat bars to warm the air circulated through the nuts. Because of the constant precipitation and temperate weather in this region, drying with ambient air alone takes a long time (a few weeks).
Jaff is checking for ripeness – the inside of this husk is just starting to turn brown but it’s not quite ready yet.
Once they’ve been dehusked, Jaff floats the nuts to check for immatures. They are then sorted – with most of the rejection being around immature nuts as their insect damage is so low. Last season Jaff won the processor award for the area’s lowest unsound rate – 0,8%.
Jaff runs the Mayomacs collection depot for the region from where Mayomacs collects for processing in either Paddock or Sabie. This George depot will only accept nuts dried to a max of 10% moisture because they have to wait for a 30-tonne load before it moves off to the factory. Currently there are about 10 truckloads per season.
SERVICE PROVIDERS VS DOING IT YOURSELF
Jaff’s uncle commented the other day how different this farm is; he felt a bit lost as they don’t spend time constantly fixing pumps, irrigation, boreholes, electricity etc like they did in Levubu. Besides the irrigation being largely dormant, Jaff has outsourced most of the other services like land prep, fertilising and irrigation maintenance. He says it has been a game-changer for him; freeing up time to enjoy with his family. Only the old tractors keep him busy now; he has two – one for spraying and one for grass-slashing.
This wild and curious specimen, that is the mac tree, has thrown me a bit today. As Jaff found out the hard way, it’s an unpredictable creature. Just when we think we know it (like Jaff did), and we take it into a new environment then suddenly … we know it not at all! In fact, if Jaff hadn’t had his trial block to guide him or hadn’t connected the clues, he would have had to pack up the macs completely and try something else. But, on the other hand, when we listen, watch and move cautiously, we can learn so much and use this wonderful resource to make a lot of money!
Thank you Jaff, for paying all those school fees and selflessly sharing everything you’ve learnt. I hope that others will accept the free lessons wisely and avoid the anguish of misunderstanding the amazing mac tree.